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A Most Memorable Lesson

By Frank J. Nezoson

English Prose from Bacon to Hardy

This was the description of a course designated as English 2 and offered at the University of Alberta to second year students in the years following the First World War; how often, I have no way of knowing, except for the scholastic year 1921–22 when 1 had the privilege of taking it in the second of my six years in Arts and Law. It was compulsory for me, but I would have been happy to have taken it in any case because this is the course I remember above all others in my time at the University.

The text used in the course was a collection of excerpts bearing the same name as the course, compiled by Dr. E. K. Broadus and Dr. R. K. Gordon, professors of English at the University. Whether Dr. Gordon ever gave the course I do not know: I took it from Dr. Broadus.

The excerpts were taken from the literature of the period, commencing with the writers of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries: Bacon (including his essay "of "Truth", with its well-known opening words, "What is truth? said jesting Pilate; and would not stay for an answer."), Sir Thomas Browne, Milton, Dryden and Swift; the Periodical Essayists of the eighteenth century, including Addison, Steele and Dr. Johnson; "Polite Correspondence" of the eighteenth century by Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, Lord Chesterfield, Cowper, Horace Walpole and others; the novels of the eighteenth century by such as Samuel Richardson, Henry Fielding, Laurence Sterne and Tobias Smollett; and, finally moving into the nineteenth century, with the writings, among others, of Scott, Carlyle, Macaulay, Dickens, George Eliot, Ruskin, and of course Hardy.

The book provided me with tracings of gold dust which I was able to follow in the ensuing years to find the mother lode of the originals from which the excerpts had been taken.

Without attempting anything in the way of even a partial biography, I should tell you something about Dr. Broadus. He was one of the first two professors appointed to the University by Dr. Tory in 1908. He was a native of Virginia and had just received his Ph.D. from Harvard when he came to Alberta. He seemed to us to be an austere man with an acerbity that we felt sometimes bordered on the sarcastic, and we were careful not to annoy him if we could help it. He was not a large man and he wore a beard that was not common in those days. He suffered from some kind of a palsy by reason of which his head constantly shook slightly from side to side, giving the impression of disbelief or disapproval as he listened to you. In spite of his infirmity and to the surprise of all, he enjoyed duck hunting in the fall. He was an excellent lecturer, with a fine speaking voice. Though not personally popular with the students, he was highly respected by them.

Dr. Broadus kept up our interest to the end of the course. When discussing the novels of Hardy he was able to tell us of an afternoon he spent with the great man in his Dorset home at long before. Dr. Broadus told us that Hardy had by this time given up writing novels because their inevitable bleakness and fatalism depressed him and that he devoted the final years of his life to poetry, with which a had started his literary career. They had a pleasant afternoon discussing literature, after which Hardy, as a good host, accompanied his guest to the railway station. He must then have been nearing eighty.

Dr. Broadus had a high standing in his profession. Once, on a trip to Boston several years after I had taken English 2, I visited Harvard and explored the Widener Library which stands on side of the "Harvard Yard". The Library was featuring a collection of first editions of the Poets Laureate, displayed on a number of tables at which the books could be examined with care. On the side of one table was a book that was obviously more modern. I picked it up and looked at the title. It was "The Poets Laureate of England" by Edmund Kemper Broadus. I could not help mentioning to the young lady in charge that Dr. Broadus had been one of my professors in English at the University of Alberta. She told me that they kept the book on hand for reference as it was the Library's authority on the Poets Laureate.

This is perhaps an overly long introduction to an incident that occurred over sixty years ago.

English 2 was the first lecture of the day on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. Our class was a large one and at our first lecture Dr. Broadus asked us to take the same seats throughout the course. He then prepared a seating plan, with the names of the students written in so that he could identify them. Amongst our number was a large and pleasant young man named Madill, who played in the line on the University Rugby Team as we called it then, and who, like Dr. Broadus, enjoyed his fall hunting.

Instead of starting with Bacon and proceeding step by step to Hardy, Dr. Broadus first gave us a sampling of the beginning, middle and end of the book, choosing excerpts from three works, all of which included meditations on the subject of death.

The first was Hydriotaphia, or Urn Burial, by Sir Thomas Brown (1605-1682), in which the author considers the futility of both earthly fame and earthly memorials in perpetuating the memory of man.

We then turned to the second-last author, Robert Louis Stevenson, and his essay "Aes Triplex" (Triple Brass), the title being taken from one of Horace's Odes (Book 1, Ode 3), in which the poet, in wishing bon voyage to his friend Virgil as he was about to embark on a ship bound for Greece, pays tribute to him whose "heart was mailed in oak and triple brass, who was the first to commit a frail bark to the rough seas".

Stevenson speculates on the surprising disregard by most of the population to the prospect of death, and takes as an example the inhabitants of cities in South America that stand on the sides of "fiery mountains", who live normal lives and are not impressed by the prospect of death any more than they would if they lived "in the greenest corner of England".

We then came, on a fine autumn Monday morning, to Addison's essay in the Spectator of March 30, 1711, "Thoughts in Westminster Abbey", which commences with these words:

"When I am in a serious humor, I very often walk by myself in Westminster Abbey; where the gloominess of the place, and the use to which it is applied, with the solemnity of the building, and the condition of the people who lie in it, are apt to fill the mind with a kind of melancholy, or rather thoughtfulness, that is not disagreeable. I yesterday passed a whole afternoon in the churchyard, the cloisters, and the church, amusing myself with the tombstones and inscriptions that I met with in those several regions of the dead; ... upon my going into the church I entertained myself with the digging of a grave."

Dr. Broadus asked, "What did Addison mean by 'I entertained myself with the digging of a grave'? Can you tell us", running his finger down the seating plan, "Mr. Madill?"

There was no answer, and there was a silence in the classroom that was not an empty silence but a highly-charged one, as if everyone had stopped breathing, because most of us knew. Dr. Broadus repeated the name and then asked, "Is Mr. Madill not here this morning?" The man next to the empty chair answered with a catch in his voice, "He was out hunting on Saturday and shot himself."

Dr. Broadus looked stricken, and said almost to himself, his lips hardly moving, "Is it possible? I hadn't heard".

Everyone started breathing again cautiously and the normal rustling noises of a classroom were once more heard. In a few moments the lecture was resumed, but I can't remember if the question was asked again.

Published Winter 1982.

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